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Woman Toils in SP Cafe To Pursue Her Dream Of Playing Bassoon
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Theresa Treuenfels is a professional bassoonist who, between gigs, works at Nicole’s Cafe — where she sometimes practices after the cafe closes (left). Photos by Henk Friezer

SOME people go to great lengths to follow their dream.

Theresa Treuenfels is one of those people.

She loves to play the bassoon.

To live her dream, Treuenfels has cobbled together a life that includes taking any gigs that come her way, plus teaching and working three days a week at Nicole’s Market and Cafe on Meridian Avenue in South Pasadena.

“I’m the only person who can be sweeping the floor at Nicole’s and have the music from the overture to Act III of Wagner’s ‘Lohengrin’ going around in my head,’’ Treuenfels said with a laugh as she imitated the sound of a bassoon playing “Lohengrin.’’

For non-aficionados, a bassoon is a double-reed woodwind instrument known for its distinctive tone and wide range, and which can be four to five feet long.

“It’s got a dark, warm sound which is full, rich and resonant,’’ explained Treuenfels, before adding that it also can be difficult to play.

It helps to have big hands, because it takes a big reach to reach the finger notes. It also can be an expensive instrument — a new one can cost between $5,000 and $20,000.

But once she began playing, after a teacher suggested she switch from the piccolo, “I fell in love with it,’’ Treuenfels said. “I just connected.’’

And it’s a love affair that’s kept on giving her pleasure. She decided that she wanted to play professionally while she was attending USC.

“It just sort of clicked,’’ she recalled. “I got into it. I was in music education and changed to performance. All of a sudden, I decided to do this. It just sort of bubbled up.’’

I’m a longtime patron of Nicole’s, and I can’t remember why or when the topic of Theresa’s bassoon playing first came up.

Theresa Treuenfels behind the counter at her “other” job — at Nicole’s Market and Cafe on Meridian Avenue in South Pasadena.

The 55-year-old curly-haired woman has been working at the French cafe for 14 years, and I don’t remember asking: “I’ll take two croissants, and how’s the music career going?’’

Maybe she mentioned that she had been off to play at a music festival, or done a concert. She credits her boss, Nicole Grandjean, with being “super flexible’’ with her schedule.

This is definitely not a hobby. She is a professional in every sense of the word.

She’s a tenured bassoonist with the Fresno Symphony. She has subbed at the L.A. Philharmonic and played for the L.A. Chamber and Master Chorale orchestras. She plays a music festival in Bend, Ore., and with the Desert Symphony.

She also teaches bassoon at Azuza Pacific College and the Colburn School of Music. She will be giving a faculty recital on Jan. 26, and at Colburn on Feb. 9.

“I’m not super busy. 130-160 days a year,’’ she said. “I don’t think the bassoon runs my life.’’

She can make $780 for four rehearsals and a concert. The amount varies according to how often she plays and the orchestra pay scale. An orchestra might need a bassoonist to sit in for a rehearsal, or for several days.

“You just don’t know sometimes,’’ she said. “You get a call two hours before a rehearsal — someone gets sick, or things get screwed up.

“It’s usually not difficult to fill in. The music is available online beforehand.’’

She stopped taking auditions six or seven years ago, but remembers the feeling.

“There is always more talent competing for fewer jobs,’’ she explained. “There are just four bassoonists in an orchestra and you are always competing against people who are just coming out of college.’’

Auditioning means going before a committee, which can be members of the orchestra, and the conductor has the final say.

“It’s nerve-wracking,’’ she said. “You practice for weeks and listen to pieces, taping yourself. It’s really all about having your day.’’

Now it’s all freelance.

“It’s all word of mouth, meeting people on jobs,’’ she said. “I drive a lot. I might go 10-20,000 miles a year driving to and from jobs.’’

Practice is one to three hours every day — sometimes Treuenfels brings her bassoon to work and plays after the restaurant closes.

She makes her own reeds for the instrument, something that can take 45 minutes per reed. Sometimes she can go through 15 reeds in a concert.

Treuenfels has been playing for 42 years and hopes she can keep playing professionally for 10 more years.

Juggling jobs. The uncertainty of what’s next. Not knowing if you are going to be “on’’ when you get there.

It’s all been worth it for Treuenfels, who can turn on a smile that lights her face.

“When you play super, you get chills,’’ she said. “It is so fun. It makes all the struggles worthwhile. The music goes round in your head for weeks.

“If things don’t go well, you just have to get over it.’’

My email is ALippman@gavilanmedia.com. Please write if you have any story ideas about people, places or things of interest to South Pasadena residents.

Andy Lippman

A former Los Angeles bureau chief for the Associated Press, Lippman writes weekly about some South Pasadena person, business, issue or trend.

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